In Conversation with a Barnard Dancer: Debbie Mausner

By Cary Chapman

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Debbie Mausner in action. Photo credit: Paul B. Goode photographing “The Stairs” with Trainor Dance at Barnard College Diana Center

When I sit down with Debbie Mausner, it’s a Tuesday evening. We’re both tired after a long day of classes and, for her, rehearsals. But Debbie’s one of the kindest people I know—she’s got the kind of natural warmth that invites conversation—and she’s more than happy to answer my questions.

The first time I saw Debbie dance was during a performance of “the stairs” on the Diana Center steps this fall, and I was struck by her grace, fluidity, and latent power. It seemed as if she was flying from surface to surface while negotiating gravity in unique, unexpected ways. The dance as a whole seemed to be really saying something, and when I talked with Debbie about her experiences in the Barnard dance department, her post-graduation dreams (this is her last semester here!), and her opinions on dance as an art form, I arrived at a better understanding of just how powerful dance is at making a statement.

Here’s an edited and condensed version of our conversation:

Cary Chapman: If you had to describe your Barnard dance education in three words, what would they be?

Debbie Mausner: Community, process-oriented, postmodern.

CC: Is there anything you would change about the Barnard dance department?

DM: The department already offers a huge range of things that can appeal to any type of dancer at any level, approaching dance from all kinds of backgrounds and perspectives…I hope in the future that they will bring more diverse dance history electives.…They’ve already been teaching Indian classical dance. [It’s important] to show more of a breadth of history electives on vernacular dances […The department is] so western-centric, which is important, but those other [dance traditions] are essential to understanding the larger historical narrative. Also, I do think they’re going in that direction already.

CC: Tell me a little bit about your thesis.

DM: For my senior thesis, I’m writing about the integration of disabled dancers into mainstream western concert dance and looking at how that serves as a catalyst for dance as a medium for social and political change…And how integration reframes our ideas about aesthetic and meaning of the body in performance, and how it can progress the physical practice of choreography and movement invention.

CC: What made you land on that topic?

DM: Well, last year, I started assisting [with] classes at Mark Morris, a dance studio in Brooklyn, on Saturdays working with students with learning disabilities…It was a really wonderful, eye-opening experience that taught me a lot about pedagogy. And that sparked my interest in finding out about [what] other opportunities there were in performance for dancers with different kinds of disabilities. Since then, I’ve been seeking out performing companies in the city that do that kind of integrated work with dancers and I saw a performance over the summer by the Heidi Latsky dance company…I knew that this was something I wanted to work on [… It’s] a chance to open up that discourse within the Barnard dance department.

CC: Given your perspective as a dancer at a women’s college, is there anything about the intersection between dance and feminism that is unexpected or interesting?

DM: Even though dance is considered a female dominated field, just in terms of sheer numbers, there is this glass ceiling effect where male dancers, because they are fewer and far between, A) have more opportunities and B) get more choreographic work and public renown, even though there are just as many qualified female choreographers. There’s this gender inequality that we’re struggling with in terms of representation. I think also that dance in a lot of ways is an inherently feminist practice because, well, it depends on what kind of dance you’re doing, but in something like contact improvisation for example, certain practices eliminate the gender hierarchy of the body to the point where men and women, or people of any gender, are expected to share and take weight—literally each other’s weight—equally, and in a lot of cases in technique classes or performances where we’re integrated, we’re all expected to do the same repertory…as a practice I think [dance] strives towards equality, at least in terms of modern and postmodern [forms of dance].

CC: And you want to be a professional dancer, right? In terms of your goals post-graduation?

DM: Yes!

CC: What was the most fulfilling piece you have been in and why?

DM: The rehearsal I’m in right now is one of the most intellectually fulfilling processes I’ve ever encountered…I think Joanna [Kotze, the choreographer] gives a lot of agency to us as collaborators in the process, and really, really challenges us to think about our relationships to both the viewer and the space that we’re working in in ways that those relationships are not conventionally questioned or challenged. And I also think that she’s trying to help us find the potential of our own physicalities and to generate movement material through improvisation that breaks beyond our habits as dancers.

CC: What is some advice you would give to someone entering the Barnard dance department? Anything you wished you knew?

DM: Take classes that expose you to new things and get you out of your comfort zone… Barnard is a great place to do that in that the dance department is so inclusive of all levels and all types of dancers that it really leaves a lot of experimental ground. I’d also recommend studying with as many different teachers as possible because the dance faculty is so incredibly professional and diverse. I have absolutely loved learning with people from such a variety of professional backgrounds. And I would honestly recommend to anybody, whether or not you’re interested in choreography, to take a composition class because it changes the way you view dance…It’s a great creative challenge for anybody.

CC: How would you say dance compares to other forms of art, such as 2D visual art, music, or poetry?

DM: It’s a form of expression and a way of passing down history and culture and important values that people have held through time, or important intellectual and artistic inquiries that people are investigating in a certain period of time. But, the major difference is that the medium [in dance] is the body, and that makes it ephemeral, that makes dance harder to record or translate without it having to go through another process, like video recording or writing notation. In that sense, it’s always relational. It’s always about relationships between people, because the dancer is present and the viewer is present [… Dance is] really a bodily, live conversation.

Cary Chapman is a junior at Barnard College and a writer for Barnard Bite.

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